New school … new way of training: Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine has 1st graduation

Haley Jean Johnson and Benedict Cu are quick to admit that they were attracted to the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine because of the option of an accelerated — and cost-saving — three-year program.

But, on the day that they and 16 others became the first graduates of the school, they both said the program’s emphasis on getting out in the community — out where they could see the impact of the social determinants of health firsthand — helped them become better doctors.

And, even more, the introduction to New Jersey has both Johnson (a native of Minnesota) and Cu (a native of California) eager to start their careers here. Both will do their residencies in New Jersey, as will the 16 other graduates, helping the school fulfill one of his missions: battling the physician shortage in the state.

“I had never been to New Jersey before,” Johnson said. “But, after being able to explore all the different areas, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the Shore and the people here. You really can’t go wrong with New Jersey.”

Bob Garrett. (File photo)

Hearing all of this was a thrill for Bob Garrett. Thursday night’s graduation represented the crowning achievement of a nearly decadelong quest.

“This medical school has exceeded all of my wildest dreams and expectations,” the Hackensack Meridian Health CEO said. “I think back to the vision that we had and how it always linked back to our mission: to transform health care.

“I believe you can’t transform health care unless you start at the beginning. You have to transform medical education — training, educating a new generation of physicians to really meet the needs of the health care system and of society in the future. And I think we’ve done that.”

It starts with the Human Dimension course students take throughout their schooling, Garrett said.

From the first day of the degree program, this immersive, community-based experience links pairs of students to families in the community, with a focus on four domains of health: social, environmental, psychological and medical.

Throughout their pursuit of the degree, students followed the health trajectories of individuals and families in locations around North Jersey, including Hackensack, Garfield, Paterson, Passaic, Bloomfield, Clifton, Nutley, Union City and West New York.

The intention, Garrett said, was for the students — through experiences in the family’s home, community and health care settings — to gain a better understanding of the role community plays in health and well-being.

Benedict Cu and Haley Jean Johnson at the graduation. (HMSOM)

Cu said the program definitely had impact.

“The HD program really helped students, prior to really experiencing clinical work, get an understanding of where the patients come from,” he said. “That was important, because we were able to see the barriers to health care that we do not see in the hospital.

“Instead of just thinking patients are not following up with their physicians or just not taking their medications, the HD program indirectly forced us to see the realities of medicine.”

Johnson feels it will be a lifelong lesson.

“Actually going into houses and talking to people about any health conditions that they had, or any of the barriers to accessing health that they have, gave us more information,” she said. “We got to see what they’re going through before we actually see them in the hospital.

“I think it will definitely help me going forward to really understand the patient as a whole and more of a humanistic approach. And it definitely will remind me — even on the busiest days — to take that extra minute to talk to the patient and see what may be affecting them outside of the hospital.”

Johnson and Cu and the 16 other graduates will now begin their residencies in a variety of disciplines, including anesthesiology, internal medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, emergency medicine and neurology, at Hackensack University Medical Center, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Ocean Medical Center and JFK University Medical Center.

The other 42 students in the inaugural class are scheduled to graduate next spring, completing the more traditional four-year track. All of them are part of what quickly will be a growing number of alumni.

The class incoming in 2019 admitted 90 students. Another 122 students made up the 2020 cohort, and the latest incoming class will number more than 150.

And, in another result that fulfills Garrett’s vision, the classes are doing their part to diversify New Jersey’s next generation of physicians. Nearly half of the class admitted in 2020 is female, and students speak 33 different languages. Half of the class identifies as people of color — and a quarter are from groups categorized as underrepresented in medicine.

The graduation ceremony. (HMSOM)

Garrett, who said he’s looking forward to seeing how the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine develops over the years, was eager to check off a few accomplishments it already has had.

He’s proud that it preaches a sense of collaboration, with all future health care professionals training together.

“We were able to break down some of the barriers between the disciplines — the physicians, nurses and allied health professionals,” he said. “They really need to work as a team. And there’s so much good data out there that supports that to say when, you know, when these different professionals and groups work as a team, that patient outcomes are significantly improved.”

He’s proud of the fact that the school is finding ways to make medical education more affordable.

“I think we need to be very sensitive about that,” he said. “To get the best and the brightest, we need to make sure that we’re funding the school with enough adequate scholarships, so that all people that have talent have an opportunity to apply to medical school and to get into the medical school.”

And he’s proud of the HD program. While he said the school isn’t the first to do something like it, he hopes more pick up on the idea. Its worth, he said, has never been more apparent.

“The pandemic really reinforced some of the essential aspects of the curriculum,” he said. “It reinforced that this was the right decision to require it.

“I’ve said it before — and I know it sounds a little cliché — but we want our future doctors to understand that patients are people. It’s not just what’s on the chart; they’re real people who have real challenges. And some of those challenges are directly related to their health and their wellness. That needs to be an essential part of the training.”